The next big thing in the Pa. legislature? Another fight over congressional maps

Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg

In this file photo from Nov. 19, 2019, the dome of the Pennsylvania Capitol is visible through the trees in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

With elections over, a state budget passed, and a fraught legislative session coming to a close, Pennsylvania lawmakers are beginning to look toward a long-awaited task: redrawing district maps.

Redistricting happens every decade after the U.S. Census is performed and it carries the opportunity to shift the balance of power for 10 years of state politics.

When the lines were redrawn 10 years ago, Republicans controlled the House, Senate and governorship, and held a majority in the Pa. Supreme Court. The maps they came up with were widely thought to favor Republicans and courts later declared two — the Senate map, and the congressional map — to be partisan gerrymanders, and ordered them to be redrawn.

Republicans also held the governor’s office and the legislature during the 2001 reapportionment.

Now, Democrats control the governorship for the first time in three decades following the census. And their control of the state Supreme Court gives them considerable sway over the process.

For the past several years, Carol Kuniholm, with the advocacy group Fair Districts PA, has been pushing for a constitutional amendment designed to make redistricting less partisan, by putting the task in the hands of a citizens’ commission.

The amendment hasn’t passed. Generally, Kuniholm’s efforts get more support from Democrats, who had seen their numbers dwindle under GOP-authored maps. But she notes, they’re not immune to the same temptations Republicans felt in 2011.

“We are quite sure that the Democrats will push their advantage,” she said. “How far they push it will be interesting to see.”

The redistricting process is layered.

Once census numbers are released, states find out how many congressional seats they’ll have based on population. Pennsylvania’s population is not growing as fast as some other states, and it’s expected to lose a seat in D.C. — going from 18 to 17.

That means the even 9-9 partisan divide that now exists would be certain to end. The bitterest fight this go-round will likely revolve around which congressional district will disappear — perhaps making two allies vie for the same territory.

For the congressional map, the legislature draws and votes for a proposal, and it is either approved or vetoed by the governor.

For state House and Senate maps, the leader of each of the four caucuses gets a seat on a committee tasked with drawing the lines, and together they select a fifth, independent member. If they can’t decide on one, as has often happened in the past, the state Supreme Court appoints one.

It’s always possible that the map-drawing will end up in the hands of the courts — either the state Supreme Court filled with more elected Democrats, or the U.S. Supreme Court filled with more members appointed by Republicans.

With the legislature and governor divided by party, Kuniholm is betting on one of those outcomes.

“I would love to think that it would be possible to draw a fair map that doesn’t go to the Supreme Court,” she said. “But we’ve just seen fifteen lawsuits over our election when there’s not even a tiny piece of evidence of fraud…the realist in me says, ‘Yeah, there will be litigation.”

State lawmakers and the governor last had a chance to work together on this in 2018, after the state Supreme Court threw out the congressional map. The two sides couldn’t work out an agreement before a court-ordered deadline and the map that’s been in place since was drawn by a court-appointed special master.

Despite Kuniholm’s fears, some lawmakers hope for better cooperation this time.

“I think what we learned from the congressional redistricting process of 2018 is that everything works better when we all try to work constructively and remove politics,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny). “At the end of the day, if you lose control of the process … then nobody walks away happy.”

During Costa’s first reapportionment as a caucus leader in 2011, he was part of a lawsuit that ended with Republicans’ initial map being redrawn.

He’s not ruling litigation out this time. But he’s hoping it doesn’t happen — especially because he thinks there will be a lot of public scrutiny.

“I think people are very cognizant of what has to be done, and will be looking at this thing thoughtfully with a keen eye toward making sure that they’re fair and they’re done, as much as possible, independently of elected officials putting their fingers on the scale,” he said.

Even though attempts to amend Pennsylvania’s reapportionment process have so far fallen flat, a few concrete changes have happened between the 2011 map-drawing and now.

Thanks to the flood of litigation the 2011 maps caused, the courts have written more legal guidance for map-drawing. And, Kuniholm said, all that litigation served another purpose too: making people pay attention to, and understand the importance of, the reapportionment process — citizen’s commission or not.

“In the past, it was far, far harder for the public to see what the maps were, or to figure out how to analyze them,” she said. “Now, we’re going to have hundreds and hundreds of people across the state who … are ready to jump up with some outcry if they don’t see good maps.”

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